James Hyslop

Prof. James Hyslop

The Borderland of Psychical Research
Publisher: G. B. Putnam's Sons
Published: 1906
Pages: 425

Chapter 5: Dissociation and Obliviscence

 - James Hyslop -

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          DISSOCIATION AND obliviscence are the complement of memory. They represent the retirement of incidents in past experience from the command of association and reproduction. Dissociation is a function quite as important to the normal mind as association, though it is also the function that so clearly marks the abnormal mind in its action. But it is a law of consciousness as distinct and as deeply ingrained in its fibre as its complement, redintegration. At the same time it is a function of the normal and abnormal life alike, and is distinguished in them by the manner of its operation. We shall examine this feature of it later. For the present it suffices to remark its complementary nature with association and its occurrence in both forms of the life of consciousness. Redintegration builds together the phenomena of experience, and but for certain limitations would cement all of them into the same compact whole. Dissociation tends to separate one set of experiences from others and to moderate the tendencies of redintegration. It drops those elements of experience which are irrelevant to either the present content of consciousness or the general stream as determined by persistency of aim. In this way it serves as an economic principle in mental life. Certain influences may give it such power as to almost wholly disintegrate any given facts from the place they should have in consciousness. Let us examine both processes, redintegration briefly, in order to see more clearly how dissociation acts upon its tendencies.

I have said that redintegration tends to restore the whole of any given past experience when a part of it is restored. The amount recalled will depend much upon the mental development of the individual, and upon the particular mental state in which he is at the time. Suppose I meet a friend after a long absence, I naturally think of the last time I saw him, his surroundings, his occupation, his books or his pleasures, the kindness he did me, and the thousand little things making our common life at the time we were previously together. But all this will depend somewhat upon my state of mind. If I am busily occupied I may only exchange greetings and a word or two about the past. The present state of consciousness, its stress and strain, its interests and attention, will cheek the recall of many things that require diversion from the main pursuit of the mind at the time, and at least a momentary forgetfulness of this, and redintegration does not do the work it would do if consciousness had relaxed its attention to the main idea. There are two types of the present consciousness. The first is its day-dreaming condition, when it has relaxed the strain of work and allows the stream of thought and sensation to flow on unhindered by any voluntary restraints, and gives it over to the untrammelled laws of association in all their capricious action. The amount of integration here will depend upon the movement of mental interest. If this is slow more will be recalled; if it is rapid less will be recalled. Even here the effect of habit and interest on the subconscious states will have their influence on what is recalled, and tend to exclude what had been buried by irrelevance to conscious interest and attention. The second type of present consciousness is that which always has the content and coloring of the main interest of the individual's life. It is not a mere "moment consciousness," but is in addition the state constituted by what the will has made a constant object of pursuit, and so determined the law of association that will act and the content of experience on which that law will act. This state is a consistent stream characterized by one idea, about which gravitates the relevant of the past, while the former type has no single principle of gravitation, and is the consciousness that most easily represents the restful pleasures of life.

Both types use the same laws of association, but they use them in a different manner and with a different content. The one is more selective than the other, and tends to neglect all factors of experience that have no special relation to the main idea. The other has no reference to a main idea, but to whatever may casually recur to consciousness.

It is in this selective tendency, imposed on the mind by interest and attention, that the process of dissociation begins. We choose a certain end to realize, say the study of art, the pursuit of science, success in business, the career of a statesman, or other ambitious aim, and the choice will sharpen association as much as it does present perception and observation. They determine the one attraction for the gravitation of ideas, and these irrelevant to the main purpose soon cease to be recalled, if they recur at all. Just in proportion to their uselessness they drop into oblivion and are lost to sight, unless they turn up by accident in delirium or disease. The assimilation is for those experiences which bear upon the object of interest, and dissimilation applies to all others. Suppose my object to be science. This assumes some measure of maturity. I have some conception of the facts which I wish to see and appropriate. I am on the alert for them, and, as they occur relevant to my pursuit, I note them more distinctly and they recur more easily to association. But all that has no pertinence for my scientific end is left to perish in obliviscence. It is dissociated from the main group of facts related to my primary interest, and the mind coordinates and organizes that experience which is collectively concerned with its object. The dissociation of irrelevant facts begins the process of obliviscence which may result in amnesia of them, that is, such obliviscence that they cannot be recalled when needed, or recognized if accident should happen to bring them to consciousness. Thousands of my daily experiences thus are relegated to unused recesses of mind because they have no important place in my main interest. I do not, or may not, connect the objects on my desk with my scientific theories, nor my pleasure in eating my meals, nor my scattered thoughts in my walks nor any of the little passing objects of irrelevant interest. They are dropped out of attention and relation to the great facts connected with the idea determining the main stream of consciousness. Normal amnesia or forgetfulness is thus a healthy act, and it is only in the dissociation which buries the needful that we discover initial disturbances to normal action. But in ordinary life this dissociation is only the sign of economic mental processes and systematizing tendencies of thought and investigation.

Dissociation is greatly encouraged if it is not produced, by reverie and abstraction. These are mental states of very great concentration, and prevent what we may call the synthetic consciousness, the power and habit of mind in which we take note of its complex incidents. Thus, in looking at a landscape, I may observe all its incidents and characteristics, but if I take an abstract state of mind toward it I may neglect absolutely everything in it but the one feature attracting my attention. There are types of mind to whom this reverie or abstraction becomes so narrowing that the commonest incidents in the field of sensation are neglected. I may be thinking of a mathematical problem, and be run over by a vehicle. I may be so absorbed in my thoughts that I do not hear what is said to me, or what is said does not immediately displace attention. The indirect field of consciousness is full of neglected incidents whenever there is any concentration of mind, and the deeper the concentration the more important the facts dissociated and neglected. When this indirect field makes no impression on the occupied consciousness, it lapses into complete forgetfulness for any future recognition, even though it be recalled and become a part of any present consciousness. In this case it will appear as a new fact and not as one previously known. The reverie and abstraction begin the segregation of elements that might otherwise enrich the general content of consciousness. The cleavage produced by reverie and abstraction between the idea that has seized consciousness and what is in the indirect field varies in an indeterminate way. It may involve so distinct a separation that no future association is possible, or it may be so narrow as to linger in the field as an annoyance until recognized. But in all the various stages and degrees of it, the dissociation marks a tendency quite as natural to the mind as association, and shows forces that may develop into complete obliviscence.

Reverie and abstraction are a type of fixed ideas, though they may represent a transient and normal form of them. They are related to the typical fixed idea because they result in that exclusion of associated and proximate experiences which would indicate a fuller adjustment to one's environment. The consequence is that the healthiest condition of consciousness is that which admits to its ken as many of the elements of experience as possible. We are constantly beset by sensory stimuli from all quarters of our immediate and remote environment, and the more of them that receive our attention the more healthily adjusted we are to that environment. But there are differences of value in various stimuli, and some can rightly be ignored and those of interest to our ends selected. If I am walking east, I do not have to adjust my movements to objects west of me; if I am picking fruit from a tree, I do not have to reckon with the noise of a passing train, though if I am talking with my neighbor I do have to reckon with it. Our adjustments must reckon with some elements of experience, though they can neglect others, and the healthy nature is the one which can select intelligently the stimuli and experiences which are to be appreciated and those which are to be depreciated. These will vary with the object which the mind has before itself. Reverie and abstraction may divert attention from necessary influences. This, however, will depend upon the general balance of the individual's nature, and there is no hard and fast rule for determining the right habit in this matter. What we wish to note here is the fact that these conditions of concentrated attention and absorption in one idea or stimulus, to the entire neglect of others, can be judiciously permitted only when there are no natural tendencies to fixed ideas. It is out of exclusive absorption in one experience that the crankisms of the world and certain forms of insanity arise. Excessive reverie and abstraction must lead to these when other interests do not come in to give flexibility to our characters.

Distraction is the opposite vice. It consists in excessive submission to stimuli about us and to memories capriciously recalled, and the failure to make selection from them of some one or more for a persistent interest of the mind. The man who is attracted hither and thither by every wind of circumstance and temptation, who has no selected interest to determine the pursuit of some definite end and the neglect of other influences about him, is at the mercy of every sensation he experiences and every idea that caprice in reproduction will instigate. In this condition every idea and every sensation have equal value. Between distraction and abstraction, between diversion and reverie of the extreme types, lies the mean of healthy mental action. Concentration will not tend to abnormally fixed ideas if it is attended, or if at any suitable moment it can be attended, by the appropriate distraction. This means that we cannot healthily lose sight of the complexity of our lives. We may well choose one end to emphasize, but other ends should not be neglected if they have any relation at all to the main suit. The stress and strain of too much fixed interest and attention only wears out the mind, while it leaves aspects of its nature undeveloped. Consequently a measure of distraction is necessary as the corrective of a one-sided development. It seems that our best estate is in the mediation of two opposite tendencies, a peculiarity of the development of all complex organisms. Either extreme involves the abnormal, and in distraction and abstraction we find types of mental temperament and action that enable us in the normal life to detect the essential forces at work in producing the abnormal.

Let me summarize. We have in any stream of sensations and memories a constant gravitation of the mind toward some of them away from others, and in proportion as this is intense and selective with reference to a main interest, we have the synthetic association and cohesion of some and the dissociation of others. First we neglect some elements of the complex experience, and they are not so easily recalled. Then we begin to neglect some of the incidents in recall until only the most important are left for our attention. If any interest in life changes the importance of all the facts that were once at ready disposal, they retire into oblivion and become completely dissociated from our normal mental life. Concentration selects and gives cohesion to appropriate incidents, and distraction scatters and weakens accomplishment. But in the normal action association and dissociation are balanced with reference to the healthy development of the individual, and we can seek only in the abnormal those cases which represent the isolated action of each influence.

Dissociation is especially characteristic of the abnormal life. It is not limited to mere obliviscence or suppression from memory of the material of retention. It is not exclusively a defect of reproduction or a separation of mnemonic incidents from their appropriate place in the stream of experience. It also shows itself in the very field of sensation, as possibly we may ultimately ascertain that distraction and abstraction, supposedly mental conditions only, are definitely correlated with sensory peculiarities. It is in abnormal sensations, or rather in the absence of them, that we discover the first traces of the tendency to mental dissociation, and some very remark able psychological phenomena are apparent in them.

The first and simplest illustration of this dissociation in sensation is in the phenomenon which shows a limitation of the field of vision. It is very frequent in hysterical cases. It means that a part of the retina appears to be insensible, as objects throwing their image on this apparently insensible point are not consciously perceived. They are apparently non-existent for vision. The amount of the retina thus showing apparent insensibility varies with the patients and often in the same patient with different conditions of the mind and functional action. The phenomenon is determined by an instrument called the perimeter. It measures the sensitive field and determines its relation to the known visual sensorium in normal cases. Usually, that is, the normal eye perceives objects far in the indirect field. We can see almost at right angles to the point in the central field. But in cases of limitation of this field, we may not see one-half of the field. We may see no farther than thirty or fifty degrees from the median plane, which is the central point. But the chief matter of interest is that experiments have shown that the subject may subconsciously perceive objects that are not consciously perceived at all. It is found in hypnosis of these cases that the impressions not consciously noticed in the normal state are remembered, which shows that the function of the retina is normal, but that the sensation on the apparently insensible part of it is dissociated from the synthetic grasp of the normal condition, and taken account of only by the subliminal activities. The same phenomenon has been remarked in the various anaesthesias of touch. Sometimes this anaesthesia is only partial. The hands or the feet or special loci of the body are anaesthetic, that is, apparently insensible to tactual objects. The whole surface of the tactual periphery may be thus affected. I saw a case of this kind in one instance. But it is found, in some cases at least, that the stimulus is subconsciously perceived and understood, as in the limitation of the field of vision. All that has occurred has been the dissociation of some tactual sensations from others or all the tactual sensations from those of the other senses.

This sensory dissociation or disintegration is the precursor or the analogue of the same process in our memories, where the attraction between ideas and experiences is not sufficient to synthesize them or to reproduce them for association and synthesis. It tends to place the past beyond recall, and may be occasioned in various ways. It may be the result of persistent ideas, of concentrated interest, or of accident and disease. I shall enumerate a number of incidents of it.

Take a case reported from the Salpetriere. 

"The patient is nineteen years old. She came to the hospital on the 5th of June, 1894, and was suffering from disturbances of memory. Examination revealed the following symptoms: Total anaesthesia of the skin and of the mucous membranes, limitation of the field of vision, disturbances of the color sense. As to the disturbances of memory, the patient lost all reminiscences for all that she had lived through since the 26th of May, 1894. Patient remembers, however, that she has had a violent emotion on that day; a gendarme came to her and served her official summons. From this point of time she remembers nothing at all. She lost all capacity for synthetizing new experiences in her narrowed moment of self-consciousness. Now, when the patient's eyes and ears were closed, she rapidly fell into a sleeplike state; it was not the normal sleep; it was rather a somnambule state. In this state the lost memories and sensibilities returned."

The celebrated Ansel Bourne case, reported to the Society for Psychical Research, by Dr. Richard Hodgson, affords a most interesting case of dissociation, and that of the present from the past life, or perhaps better, the past from the present. This man disappeared from his home and was given up for lost. Six weeks later he turned up in his normal state in a distant town, and not knowing how he had gotten there. In the meantime he had been in a somnambulic state, not recognizable by any one with whom he came into contact, and was keeping a junkshop in this town, while his occupation previously had been that of a minister. When he awakened from his abnormal state he did not know where he was, and his actions aroused the solicitude of the landlady with whom he was boarding. A physician was called, and this individual was on the point of sending him to the insane asylum, when it was suggested that he act on the statements of the patient that he had come from a certain place in another State, naming it. A telegram in accordance with these directions brought a nephew to recognize his uncle. There was no memory of the normal life in this somnambulic state, and in the somnambulic state no memory of the normal. Persuaded by Prof. James and Dr. Hodgson to try hypnosis, he yielded, and the result was a complete and detailed account of what had happened to the man during these six weeks. The facts were verified by independent inquiry. The dissociation of one life from the other was complete in all but a few fragmentary incidents.

I have just received an instance from a correspondent who narrates his own experience. He had an attack of typhoid fever. One day he became lucid enough to recognize two friends taking notes of his talk, but he did not know what the talk was. It turned out that he had recited pages of the Cid, the first chapter of the New Testament in Greek, and the dogma of papal infallibility in Latin.When he recovered he could not repeat any of them. But in his earlier days he had been very fond of the Cid and had read the Greek Testament.

Dr. Abercrombie relates a case in which a surgeon who had met with an accident gave minute directions for his own treatment, but was found to have lost all remembrance of his wife and children. Sir Walter Scott wrote one of his novels during recovery from illness, and forgot all about it as soon as he recovered. Dr. Carpenter tells a case in which a minister repeated a service on a following Sunday which he had performed on the previous Sunday, and remembered nothing about the first service. I quote the account.

"A dissenting minister, apparently in perfectly sound health, went through an entire pulpit service on a certain Sunday morning with the most perfect consistency, - his choice of hymns and lessons, and his extempore prayer, being all related to the subject of his sermon. On the following Sunday morning, he went through the introductory part of the service in precisely the same manner, - giving out the same hymns, reading the same lessons and directing his extempore prayer in the same channel. He then gave out the same text, and preached the very same sermon as he had done on the previous Sunday. When he came down from the pulpit, it was found that he had not the smallest remembrance of having gone through precisely the same service on the previous Sunday; and when he was assured of it, he felt considerable uneasiness lest his lapse of memory should indicate some impending attack of brain disease. None such, however, supervened; and no rationale can be given of this curious occurrence, the subject of it not being liable to fits of 'absence of mind,' and not having had his thoughts engrossed at the time by any other special preoccupation."

Dr. Carpenter mentions another instance in which the memory of words was so disturbed that when the patient called on a friend he asked the son how his wife was, meaning his mother. "About the same time, he told a friend that 'he had had his umbrella washed,' the meaning of which was gradually discovered to be that he had had his hair cut." A clergyman confused "brother" and "sister" and "gospel" and "epistle." The resemblances in these cases were associated and the differences dissociated. In one it was the relationship which was the same, in the other the meaning, and in both the phonetic element was dissociated.

Dr. Boris Sidis reports a most remarkable case of temporarily lapsed personality, which had such a careful investigation by himself and a colleague that it will certainly become classic. It is called the Hanna case. Mr. Hanna was a clergyman. While returning home on horseback from town, he attempted to alight, lost his footing, and fell to the ground head foremost. He was picked up unconscious. He lay in this state for two hours. He showed no signs of recovering consciousness, and heroic means were adopted to restore him to consciousness. "Finally he opened his eyes, looked around, moved his arm, then sat upright in bed, arose, reached toward one of the physicians and attempted to push him." A struggle followed, and he was finally strapped to the bed. At the suggestion of a stranger the straps were removed, and the patient remained quiet, but showed that he did not know where he was or what the meaning of words was. It soon became apparent that he had completely lost all his knowledge and personal identity. He was in the mental condition of an infant, and could not even make his hunger known for lack of comprehending it. He began the learning of absolutely everything as an infant would. Gradually, through various means involving the reassociation of his new experiences with old ones that were recalled but not recognized, the man was restored to his health and little trace of his accident seemed left. But the interesting point in connection with this dissociation of his past from the present sensations was the content of some of his dreams, after he had gotten far enough along to tell them. He did not remember the incidents which they contained, but when told, they were recognized by his parents, who remembered them as incidents in the man's life in another State. These were recalled in the dream-life, narrated in the waking state, but not recognized by himself as a part of the patient's life before the accident. His normal experience was dissociated equally from his present life and the consciousness of his dreams in the waking state.

Dr. Albert Wilson reports a case of a young girl, healthy and normal, who was attacked by influenza, recovered, but suffered a relapse from too early exposure to fresh air, and was near death several times in a condition something like a trance. Recovery from this condition was followed by the loss of all her memories, including her own name and the names and identity of her parents. Like the Hanna case, she had to learn many things anew, and it was long before any association between her present and the past was effected, so complete had been the cleavage or dissociation caused by her illness and its cerebral effects.

Another case is reported by Dr. Boris Sidis.

"The patient, otherwise a strong and healthy man, but extremely sensitive and nervous, used to fall into subconscious states, preceded by what may be termed sensory aura (a sign of the oncoming attack), this being uniformly a sensation of green. The subconscious state lasted from about half an hour to an hour and more, the patient often becoming violent, having hallucinations, making attempts to assault his sister-in-aw in the presence of his wife and bystanders; fighting people, beating cruelly his best friends, and even attempting in a violent fit of anger to throw out through the window his own little baby, whom in his normal state he greatly loves and adores. When the subconscious state works itself off and gradually approaches its termination, the patient becomes exhausted and falls into a deep sleep, which sometimes lasts as long as fifteen hours or more. On emerging from this sleep, the patient remembers nothing of what had taken place during the subconscious state. The memories, however, were not lost; they were present subconsciously, and were brought to light by the induction of hypnoidal states."

Instances of this kind could be multiplied indefinitely, but they would only illustrate the splitting off from the normal consciousness and its access many of the present sensations and past ones, the dissociation of experiences which ought to be associated and to cohere tenaciously in the normal condition. They are but exaggerated forms of this disintegration which has to characterize even the normal life, and they represent just the reverse of those remarkable resurrections of memories mentioned in the last chapter. There we found a number of instances in which little incidents not naturally recallable were resurrected by some accident or unusual action of association. Here we find these experiences lost and not reproducible. Dissociation thus is a defect of reproduction, association is its normal function, retention being the same for all conditions, normal and abnormal. Dissociation determines obliviscence, and association remembrance or recognition, though there are numerous instances in which reproduction does its work and recognition fails in its functions. But before recognition can be expected to act, reproduction has to take place, and if dissociation acts recognition is impossible. Dissociation thus becomes the initial step in the diseases of personality. Association builds up complex personality; dissociation dissolves it, and the measure of a sound or a defective intellect in this respect will be proportioned, the one to the range of experience within the command of association, and the other to the extent to which dissociation disintegrates memory.

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Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13

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